Once considered a dangerous form of escapism for hippies, celebrities, and wayward teenagers, marijuana is mainstreaming itself into the national culture. Its medical benefits championed for years, cannabis is increasingly accepted as a recreational drug.
As states approve the prescription use of marijuana, cultural momentum is building for the open—albeit regulated—buying and selling of the drug. Ballot initiatives in several states, including California, reflect the trend toward legalization.
Where the Marijuana Is Welcome
In addition to California, Colorado, Washington, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada have all elected to legalize cannabis. These decisions did not result from legislation, but were resolved by public referendums over the last few years. States like Washington—citing federal data as well as their own—claim vindication of these decisions since there is no demonstrable uptick in marijuana use.
Whether or not this evidence is premature, it further strengthens the impetus toward legalization in other jurisdictions. Meanwhile, the states in which recreational marijuana is available are challenged to manage this new industry in a way that will bring prosperity without reaping a whirlwind of unforeseen consequences.
Yet the general public can not be ignored by their governments. There is little doubt that state legislators are happy to yield to state-wide referendums on controversial issues because they are relieved from negative backlash, i.e. the people have spoken.
Revealing a steady change in opinion, California voters approved Proposition 64, legalizing the purchase, use and transport of up to an ounce of cannabis—for those 21 and older—as well as the ownership/cultivation of up to six marijuana plants. They did this in 2016, just six years after rejecting a similar measure.
Now Comes the Hard Part
After ballot initiatives, however, public officials must find away to keep the wrong people from getting high at the wrong time under the wrong circumstances. This is no easy task, as illustrated by Massachusetts delaying its own regulatory regime. While this postponement does not prevent legal possession, it does slow the establishment of retail distribution in the state.
Because ballot initiatives are general in scope, laws and regulations are needed to fill in the blanks. What are the criteria for licensing pot shops? What about food that is laced with cannabis? Are there to be disclosures as to the ingredients? Voters are not tasked with such decisions.
Even medical marijuana faces knotty legal questions. For example, certain states are considering appointing pharmacists as sanctioned dispensers. It might make sense yet some in the profession are pushing back, concerned about liability and federal law.
Other concerns relate to the workplace and employment law: should medical marijuana users have leeway to perform their jobs while under its influence? Doctors, too, must distinguish among “prescribing”, “recommending”, or “advising consideration of” cannabis use. Fear of repercussions make choice of terms all the more significant.
Which brings all concerned to the 800-pound gorilla in the room: the federal government. Marijuana is an illegal drug under the Controlled Substances Act. As recently as 2016, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announced that it would continue to recognize cannabis as illegal based on insufficient evidence of its safety and a lack of consensus regarding its efficacy.
Law versus Culture
Twenty-five years ago, few would have predicted the growing acceptance of marijuana use. Over time, though, cannabis has mainstreamed within an expanding base of the American population. The question remains whether this newfound approval will percolate up from the states to affect national policy. Much will ride on how the states will manage the profits and pitfalls of the marijuana trade.
Image by Global Panorama, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.